Yes, I saved the big one till last. After months of bewailing all the things I did wrong in my quest for publication, I’m winding up in a blaze of controversial glory. I was a teenaged pantser. Now I’m not and I’m more successful as a result. All usual MW claims about this being subjective and there being lots of ways to publication aside, I’m convinced that pantsing slowed me down big time and made for inferior work.
Couple of clarifications: “Pantsing,” for those who don’t know, is “writing by the seat of your pants,” in other words, not “plotting” or outlining your work before you start to write. In real terms, of course,–and this is where my bold start has to be nuanced a bit—the implied binary here is an over simplification. We should think of the difference between pantsing and plotting as an infinite set of grey shades moving toward black at one end, white at the other. Few people truly inhabit one end of the spectrum alone, so even as I reject my pantsing origins I should say that what that really means is that I’ve shifted steadily towards the plotting end, not that I’ve gone from one extreme to the other.
The problem with the extremist positions is fairly self evident. On the one hand, the extremist plotter figures out every micro detail of his/her book without writing a word, thereby depriving the process of any organic evolution, missing out on those moments where a new idea emerges through the telling of the story, or where characters take on lives of their own. The hardcore plotter misses the chance for the story to shift into something better in its process of unfolding.
The opposite extreme is the pantser who starts writing with no clear idea of what the story is, what will happen or who will populate its world. The result tends to be a sprawling, meandering mess without structure or purpose and often marred by extensive digression.
Most writers inhabit some kind of middle ground, practicing a combination of the two: laying out parts of the story in note form but being unclear on the details of large sections even as they start to write. Writers who live at one end or the other have ways of fixing the problems inherent to their methods. For plotters its less of a fix than it is a gift for large scale story telling, an ability to see how the story should develop and then stick to the resultant map. This is a real skill and requires a more conscious understanding of story structure because so much has to be lain out when the book exists only as an idea. For pantsers the fix is simpler but more time consuming: editing. This is crucial. When you’ve typed “The End” on the final page of your baggy organic monster you will finally have figured out what the book is about, what its characters are like and what the core of the thing should be (if you haven’t, you have a different problem which will need a lot more work and probably someone else’s input). You can then go back into it and hack it into shape.
But here’s the problem. Most writers suck at this, and I’m including myself. When you write a book your impulse on completing your first draft is to break out the champagne. Yes, you’ll edit, but for most of us, obsessed with the idea of a finished product as we are, that edit is more likely to be a chat with the manuscript than the drag down, knock out brawl it should probably be. The fact is that we can’t see the flaws in our own work until we are either very experienced or have been able to put some real distance between us and the work, and distance usually means time.
I’m always telling my students that they should complete their assignments early (a couple of weeks, ideally, for a short paper) so that they will be able to forget about them and read them with fresh eyes before they turn them in. That way they have a better chance of seeing what any neutral observer (including me) will see: the typos, the lapses in logical thought, the misreadings etc. which they couldn’t see before because they knew what they MEANT when they wrote it and that impulse is still uppermost in their heads. What they think they did is not what is actually on paper. It takes time to be able to see this.
A case in point. A few years ago I wrote a novel and submitted it. I couldn’t sell it. Lots of possible reasons occurred to me, many of them connected to the flagging economy and the subgenre for which I was working. It didn’t seriously occur to me that the book wasn’t that good. This past summer I returned to it—a little over two years since I finished it—and was horrified by what I’d been sending out. It was aimless and self-indulgent, uncertain of its own direction, over populated and generally muddy. I took out 22,000 words in a single pass without altering the story at all.
The problem with the original was simple. I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what I was doing when I set out to write the book and it showed. Of the cutting I made in this revision, 10,000 of those words came out of the crucial first 100 pages. That’s the give away: the book just didn’t know where it was going, not clearly enough anyway. And if we know anything for sure in this business it’s that no reader will indulge you for a hundred pages if the book feels weak or uncertain of its direction, not the buyers in Barnes and Noble, not editors, not agents.
It took me nearly 3 years to be able to see what was wrong with the book, and I’ve been around the block a few times. This kind of problem just can’t happen if you plot it out more carefully. For all the pseudo-mystical criticisms of “inorganic” plotting I have yet to see real proof that a decent writer can’t plan most of what he or she is doing in advance and achieve the same or better results than the most impulse-driven pantser, while being instantly more coherent and closer to a finished product.
So why did I hold on to pantsing for so long? Because I like words. I like the sentence level stuff of story and I wanted to get to it as soon as I could, so I dived right in without knowing where I was heading. I didn’t want to do the macro nuts and bolts stuff and thought that such a mechanistic approach somehow sullied my art. Hogwash. I shifted more toward plotting, in part, because I had to, because multi-book contracts often demand a detailed outline of the next project before anyone wants to look at an actual manuscript. I still don’t especially like mapping my books out, and I am still surprised by the twists and turns my stories develop in spite of said maps, but I am confident that I get to a better, more marketable product fifty times faster this way, and I strongly recommend it.